was, and still is, the treatment of the patient as a whole, not as an isolated disease condition, coupled with prophylaxis, that is, obeying the axiom that prevention is far better than cure. Therefore the medical texts of those times e.g. Shen-nung Pen-ts'ao Ching (ca. 200 A.D.) that listed some 365 plant drugs, Ming-I Pieh-lu (ca. 500), Chia-yu Pen-ts'ao (1057) and Pen-ts'ao Kang-mu (1596) that included nearly 1900 drugs of animal, vegetable and mineral origin, recommended ginseng as an excellent tonic medicine which could maintain the body in good health, induce rejuvenation and retard the inevitable process of ageing. This was due to the restoration of Yang establishing the healthy Yin/ Yang balance in the five visceral areas. Ginseng was therefore employed in the treatment of conditions such as defective memory, gastrointestinal disturbance and debility states. As the treatment of illness comprised the rebalancing of Yin/Yang forces, the herbal plants were evaluated for their Yin or Yang properties. Thus P. ginseng, a tonic medicine, was classified as having Yang properties and P. quinquefolium L. had Yin properties and was used to "cool" the body system and so treat "hot" conditions such as fevers, sore throats and infections. In addition Chinese traditional medicine classified its herbs in three groups, mild, moderate and curative. Under such classification ginseng was considered a mild drug invigorating the body, strengthening the visceral organs, tranquillising the spirit, countering nervous debility, promoting resistance to infection, improving vision and increasing mental and physical performance.
An early Chinese medical document, now residing in the British Museum, London, indicates the use of ginseng in the formulation of "love potions". During the Liang Dynasty (ca. 500 A.D.) the occurrence, harvesting and morphological characteristics of ginseng were described and in the T'ang Dynasty (618-905 A.D.) ginseng was considered a royal plant. That ginseng was much valued is confirmed by the observation in the Sung Dynasty (926-1126) that the price of ginseng was determined by its weight in silver. Not surprisingly, therefore, in eastern medicine ginseng is a very important drug even today.
Ginseng was and often still is used in Chinese medicine in polypharmaceutical mixtures. Many old formulations are presented in the works of Harriman (1973), Hou (1978), Fulder (1993) and Reid (1995) and involve plants such as:-
Kan tsao or liquorice root (Glycyrrhiza uralensis Fisch.=Chinese or Manchurian liquorice; G. glabra L.=European or Russian liquorice, family Leguminosae), Gui zhi, Chinese cinnamon or cassia bark (Cinnamomum aromaticum Nees= C. cassia Nees ex Bl., family Lauraceae),
Shuan tsao ren, wild Chinese jujube or red date (Zyzyphus jujube Mill., family Rhamnaceae),
Pai shu or atractylodes thistle root (Atractylis macrocepbala or A. ovata) and kang shu or Chinese atractylodes root (A. chinenesis or A. lancea (Thunb.) DC.), family Compositae,
Xie bai or Chinese chives bulbs (Allium macrostemon=A. sativum L., family Liliaceae),
Mai-men-tung or creeping lilyturf root (Ophiopogon spicatus=Liriope spicata), Sheng jiang or ginger root (Zingiber officinale Rose., family Zingiberaceae),
Tzi su ye or perilla leaf (Perilla frutescens (L.) Britton, family Labiatae). Wu-wei-tzu or Chinese magnolia vine fruit (Schizandra chinensis (Turczaninow) Baillon, family Schisandraceae),
Xuan shen or figwort (Scrophularia nodosa L., family Scrophulariaceae), Fu-ling or tuckahoe or hoelen (Pachyma cocos=Poria cocos=Macrohyproia extensa, a saprophytic basidiomycete fungus growing on the roots of certain conifers of the genera Pinus and Cunninghamia) and Sang ye or Russian mulberry root (Morus tartarica, family Moraceae).
The mixed herbs are usually taken as decoctions prepared by adding boiling water and boiling to a specified reduced volume. The action of the supporting herbal medicines may include one or more of the functions flavouring, restorative, tonic, curative or supplementary. In addition the action of the supporting drugs may be positive or synergistic, improving the action of the ginseng, or negative or antagonistic, cancelling some of the unwanted actions of the mixture. Although the effect of many ancient formulae can be rationally explained using modern phytochemical, pharmacological and medical knowledge, it is more likely that the original formulations were empirically devised by trial and error rather than by application of ancient medical theory.
Early western medicine developed independently and quite differently, having no obvious contact with the philosophy of the Far East although developed with some understanding of earlier Egyptian medicine (ca. 3000-1200 B.C.) and Assyrian medicine (ca. 1900-391 B.C.). The initial Greek concepts of holistic medicine propounded by Hippocrates (ca. 460- ca. 377 B.C.) formed a logical approach to clinical medicine. Unlike the Chinese who had performed little dissection or surgery and used common body organ names to describe areas of functional activity such as digestion, elimination, heat generation, etc., the Greeks based their medical ideas on the structure and functions of precise body organs discovered by the study of the anatomy of man and many other animal species. Later it was replaced by the rigid theory devised by Galen (ca. 130-201 A.D.), the Greek physician to the Roman gladiators at Pergamon near Ephesus. Galen's ideas included the early Pythagorean theory of the four elements, the Hippocratean concept of four humours or body fluids associated with distinct parts of the body, fire=hot+dry water=cold+moist air=hot+moist earth=cold+dry blood=hot+moist phlegm=cold+moist yellow bile=hot+dry black bile=cold+dry and his own theory of the four temperaments of man, melancholy choleric sanguine phlegmatic.
Illness was considered due to imbalance of these concepts and the aim of medical treatment was the return to homoeostasis or normality. Galen's dogmatic yet erroneous theory was taken seriously by later leaders of the medical profession although his own reputedly excellent practice was probably more due to empirical observation than application of a theory. Nevertheless the theory held sway well into the 18th century; it dominated many of the early dispensatories and pharmacopoeias and undoubtedly held up the progress of European medicine. Although Galen used a very wide range of plants from Europe and Asia, ginseng did not appear in any of the formularies and ginseng was not apparently classified in the Galenical style.
As Galen's hypothesis was successfully challenged, it declined in importance. European medicine as practised by the physicians adopted the Paracelsian ideas of chemical medicine and was dominated in the 17th and 18 th centuries by the so-called Humoralism of the Eclectics, the use of venesection (blood-letting), mercurial and antimonial purgatives, bitter bark (from South American Cinchona spp.) and opium, drastic treatments for already debilitated patients. Nevertheless the European apothecaries, who operated from shops and were the forerunners of today's pharmaceutical profession, did not usually employ such methods. Instead they used the polypharmaceutical admixtures of mainly plant drugs either as powders, infusions and decoctions or aqueous alcoholic tinctures and extracts and close inspection of old prescription books and medical practice daybooks (1750-1900) coupled with modern insight into plant chemistry and pharmacology reveals that the formulations arrived at by empirical methods were probably effective in ameliorating the patients' conditions although cures were usually not possible as disease states were poorly understood (Court, 1988, 1996a). Ginseng, however, has not appeared in any of the many old prescription books and shop records that I have personally examined.
Although trade betweeen Europe and China had commenced in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 A.D.), no mention of ginseng appeared until ca. 1000 when Ibn Cordoba, a Moorish adventurer, returned to Spain with a cargo including ginseng. After initial enthusiasm, interest in ginseng rapidly declined. In 1294 Marco Polo returned to Europe with further supplies of ginseng but the combination of the remoteness of the far East and the marked differences in the two medical philosophies resulted in ginseng having little impact on European medicine.
Despite the cultivation of ginseng in China and Japan from ca. 1600 onwards and in Korea and North America from ca. 1750 onwards, it did not appear in the early European herbals and pharmacopoeias with the exception of the Württemberg Pharmacopoeia, 1741. Wienmann reported in 1757 that many European apothecaries kept ginseng although often only as a rarity. In Britain Tobias Smollett, surgeon and novelist (1721-1771), wrote in his final masterpiece "The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker" (1771) of a letter between Mathew Bramble and Dr. Lewis. Wrote Bramble "By your advice, I sent to London a few days ago for half a pound of ginzeng, though I doubt much, whether that which comes from America is equally efficacious with what is brought from the East Indies. Some years ago a friend of mine paid sixteen guineas for two ounces of it; and, in six months after, it was sold in the same shop five shillings the pound. In short we live in a vile world of fraud and sophistication". This suggests that American and Eastern ginsengs were available in London in the late 18 th century although there was doubt concerning quality.
In Theophilus Redwood's Gray's Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia published in London in 1848 reference to Ginseng mentions Panax quinquefolium (Linn.) and suggests China and North America as sources. According to Gray the root is cordial, alexiterial and aphrodisiac with a dose of 1 to 2 drachms (60 to 120 grains or 4 to 8 grammes) administered by chewing or slicing and preparation as a tea and often confounded with nin sing. A cordial was defined as a preparation possessing warm and stimulating properties, capable of exciting animal energies and generally given to elevate the spirits; an alexiterial was an antidote or preservative against contagion or poison and an aphrodisiac was then, as now, used to arouse sexual desire. In the same reference Lindley described ginseng thus:-"Root an agreeable bitter sweet, with some aromatic pungency; has a prodigious reputation among the Chinese as a stimulant and restorative, under the name of "Ginseng"; by Europeans and Americans considered nothing more than a demulcent approaching liquorice in its properties; this, however, requires further investigation, for we cannot believe that all the Chinese say, believe, and practise, is fabulous or imaginary"
Despite Lindley's caution ginseng was not listed in most of the materia medica or pharmacognosy textbooks published in the 19th century. In Flückiger and Hanbury's textbook (1879) American ginseng (P. quinquefolium) is very briefly described as a spindle shaped root which may occasionally be encountered as an adulterant of the North American drugs senega or rattlesnake root (Polygala senega L., family Polygalaceae), a stimulant and expectorant, and serpentaria or Virginian snakeroot rhizome (Aristolochia serpentaria L., family Aristolochiaceae), a local and general stimulant and tonic. There was no mention of the value of American ginseng itself.
Significantly American ginseng, not fitting readily into the established galenical ideas of the western-trained medical profession, was traded to Hong Kong or exported to Europe rather than being used indigenously by settlers in the United States and Canada. As early as 1704 Michael Sarrasin, who had arrived in Quebec as a medical adviser on behalf of King Louis XIV, had encountered the little shrub Panax quinquefolium in forests near Quebec City. Samples sent to France in the belief that the roots were a reliable aphrodisiac proved ineffective. Today we know that the dominant chemical agent in the roots is a sedative (ginsenoside Rb1) and that little of the stimulant agent (ginsenoside Rg1) is present. At the same time, on the other side of the world a French Jesuit priest, Father Pierre Jartoux, a map-maker in northern China, discovered the medicinal virtues of ginseng by living among the indigenous Chinese people. Jartoux's 1713 report to the Royal Society in London evoked considerable interest because it suggested that ginseng might be found in areas of Canada where the mountainous, forested habitat closely resembled that in China. This stimulated Father Joseph Francis Lafitou, a missionary amongst the native Canadian Iriquois tribe, to successfully seek out this wonder drug.
He soon discovered that it was known in Iroquois medicine as "garentoquen", a name referring to its man-like appearance (Harriman, 1973).
Ginseng became an important article of Canadian commerce in the period 1720-1750, being gathered by all and sundry for export via Paris to China. Inevitably the quality of the roots gathered by the itinerant harvesters was extremely variable. No control was exerted over the age of the roots garnered, no rules were laid down concerning effective drying of the roots and no cultivation attempts were undertaken with the object of reseeding and conservation. Therefore the wild stocks were soon depleted. At the same time the Chinese challenged the quality of the extremely variable batches of ginseng that they were importing at much inflated prices.
Inevitably the Canadian trade declined but, simultaneously, an American export trade developed as it was realised that ginseng grew wild in the forested areas of the north-eastern states and subsequently, during the period 17501890, ginseng was being gathered freely from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River and especially in the shady hardwood forests on the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains as far south as the 35th parallel. Although the ginseng areas in America were much greater than those in Canada, it was obvious that supplies would deplete unless conservation measures were adopted. In 1886 George Stanton, a retired New York tinsmith, set up a Chinese Ginseng Farm. Realising that other attempts to cultivate ginseng had failed miserably, Stanton decided that he would attempt to mimic natural growth conditions. Using woodland soil for the ginseng beds, artificial shade that resembled the natural woodland shade conditions, adequate ventilation and drainage of the beds and fertiliser prepared from mulched forest leaves he successfully grew crops of ginseng. Many others, who attempted to make a rapid fortune by cultivating ginseng root, failed because they did not reproduce the natural conditions that the plant favoured and, in many cases, were not pleased to patiently cultivate a plant for up to 7 years, especially when facing problems of drought and disease. Cultivation, especially in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, reached a peak in about 1920 and trade steadily declined in the 1930's until complete disruption by the Second World War in 1939.
The peak year for American ginseng export was 1862 when no less than 282.5 tonnes of dried roots collected from wild sources were traded to Canton and Hong Kong. About 68 tonnes were cultivated annually in the Depression period (1929-1934). Harriman (1973) reported that many of the ginseng farms became derelict in the 1930's and 1940's and that the annual trade in ginseng post-war, mainly to Oriental markets, was about 75 tonnes. Sadly in 1973 Panax quinquefolium was listed in CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) as a species in danger of extinction in the wild unless serious efforts were made to preserve and propagate the plants. Fortunately research involving this species has been instigated and continued, especially in the Far East, using carefully cultivated crops and indigenous American cultivation has increased steadily in Canada and the United States.
In Europe and America challenges to the Galenic ideas of medical practice came both from the traditional empirical school of herbal medicine which, as a result of trial and error, had been practised successfully by the wise women, tribal doctors, travelling quacks, etc. and from the emergence of iatrochemistry (chemical as opposed to herbal medicine). Greater advances in the understanding of chemistry from the 18 th century onwards and the new science of pharmacology or the action of chemical entities on living systems from the 19th century onwards have produced the modern sytem of rational medicine where cause and effect are related. Therefore western medicine is today mainly allopathic, using well defined natural or synthetic chemical substances for the suppression of symptoms or the treatment of specific and demonstrable pharmacological phenomena. Many of the new allopathic synthetic medicines have been dramatically effective in the battle against life-threatening diseases e.g. the sulphonamides and synthetic penicillins versus pneumonia and other bacterial infections. Unfortunately, despite the indisputable triumph of modern medicines in producing an extended, healthy and useful lifespan, there have been several well advertised incidents of dramatic and damaging side-effects due to synthetic drugs e.g. thalidomide, neomycin, Opren, etc. There are also problems due to the gradually developing resistance of some invading organisms to allopathic medicines; antibiotic and antimalarial drug resistances are typical examples of conditions caused by the injudicious use of modern medicines. As a result of adverse publicity, the use of herbal medicines worldwide has undergone a renaissance prompted by a revolt against synthetic allopathic medicines, partly because of the alleged side-effects and partly in the widespread but erroneous belief that natural products must be safer to use. Neither view is totally correct but in today's society the consumer does require products, allopathic or herbal, that are dependable.
Understanding ginseng has produced a clash between very different philosophies of medicine but the public interest in oriental and herbal medicines and the need to find new and effective treatments for many troublesome conditions including, in particular, stress states has stimulated research efforts worldwide.
In the early 20th century ginseng was rarely found in the pharmaceutical whole-salers' catalogues and therefore seldom encountered in the community pharmacy. Yet by the 1970's ginseng was appearing on the pharmacy and drugstore shelves. Today the market for ginseng in Europe and America is considerable. For example, in 1994 the United States Medicinal Herb Import Statistics revealed that 496.59 tonnes of cultivated ginseng roots valued at about $6,721,522 and 28.84 tonnes of wild ginseng roots valued at about $319,317 were imported. In the reverse direction about 1088.57 tonnes of American ginseng roots valued at about $76,000,000 were exported to the Orient. Sales of ginseng products, which are regarded as food supplements not required to meet the stringent safety and efficacy standards of the Food and Drug Administration, exceed $300,000,000 annually in the United States. Reports and advertisements for commercial ginseng and ginseng products also appear prominently and abundantly on the international Internet and World Wide Web. As a result of such commercial demand, much research is now in progress and a very large number of publications have appeared during the past three decades including some 4000 research publications, several useful books
(Harriman, S., 1973; Dixon, P., 1976; Hou, J.P., 1978; Lucas, R., 1978; Fulder,
S., 1980, 1993 and 1996) and frequent reviews (Sonnenborn, 1987; Baldwin et al, 1986; Court, 1986, 1996b; Tang and Eisenbrand, 1992).
Contemporary research, mainly undertaken in Korea, Japan, China and
Russia, has concentrated on six principal areas:-
1) the biology of Panax species and the methods of conservation of existing wild populations,
2) the propagation and cultivation of the plants in various parts of the world,
3) a vast amount of fundamental phytochemical research on ginseng plant constituents has been undertaken and sophisticated methods of separation, evaluation and standardisation have been developed,
4) techniques of tissue and callus culture; significantly plant cell biotechnology has been successfully used for only three commercial processes, the production of shikonin from Lithospermum erythrorhizon, purpurin from Rubia akane and ginsenosides from Panax ginseng (Alfermann and Petersen, 1995),
5) the medicinal properties and related pharmacological characteristics of plants and their extracts and purified isolated chemical constituents,
6) carefully controlled clinical trials to prove therapeutic value.
The prolific output of research findings continues unabated. REFERENCES
Alfermann, A.W. and Petersen, M. (1995) Natural product formation by plant cell biotechnology. Results and perspectives. Plant Cell, Tissue and Organ Culture, 43, 199-205.
Baldwin, C.A., Anderson, L.A. and Phillipson, J.D. (1986) What pharmacists should know about ginseng. Pharm. J., 237, 583-586.
Court, W.E. (1985) The Doctrine of Signatures or Similitudes. Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 6, 225-227.
Court, W.E. (1986) Ginseng—Myth, Magic or Medicine? The Herbal Review, 11, 5-15.
Court, W.E. (1988) The Materia Medica of the Nineteenth Century. Medical Historian— Bulletin of the Liverpool Medical History Society, 1, 30-38.
Court, W.E. (1996a) Musings on an old prescription book. Medical Historian—Bulletin of the Liverpool Medical History Society, 8, 25-37.
Court, W.E. (1996b) Ginseng—An Enigmatic Drug. J. Euromed. Pharm., 1, 2-8.
Dixon, P.A. (1976) Ginseng. London: Duckworth, pp. 1-101.
Fluckiger, F.A. and Hanbury, D. (1879) Pharmacographia, A History of the Principal Drugs of Botanical Origin. London: Macmillan and Co., p. 79.
Fulder, S. (1980) The Root of Being—Ginseng and the Pharmacology of Harmony. London: Hutchison, London, pp 1-328.
Fulder, S. (1993) The Book of Ginseng. Rochester. Vermont: Healing Arts Press, pp. 1-328.
Fulder, S. (1996) Ginseng Book: nature's ancient healer. Horsham: Biblios Publishers Distribution Services Ltd., pp. 1-109.
Harriman, S. (1973) The Book of Ginseng. New York: Jove Publications Inc., pp. 1-136.
Hou, J.P. (1978) The Myth and Truth about Ginseng. New York: A.S.Barnes and Co. Inc., pp. 1-245.
Redwood, T. (1848) Gray's Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia. London: Longman and Co., 2nd. ed., p. 318.
Reid, D. (1995) A Handbook of Chinese Healing Herbs. London: Simon and Schuster, pp. 1-328.
Sonnenborn, U. (1987) Ginseng: New research into the immunological, pharmacological and endocrinological activities of an old medicinal plant. Dtsch. Apoth. Ztg., 127, 433-441.
Tang, W. and Eisenbrand, G. (1992) Chinese Drugs of Plant Origin; Chemistry, Pharmacology and Use in Traditional and Modern Medicine. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, pp. 711-751.
Was this article helpful?